Australia v England, 5th Test, Sydney, 2nd day January 4, 2014

Australia's excellence shared and sustained

The sustained excellence of Australia's bowling attack - never bettered according to a past great, Glenn McGrath, has brought deep satisfaction to their mentor Craig McDermott

Pressed a few days ago to recall the moment when Australia's bowlers delivered their finest spell for this Ashes series, their mentor Craig McDermott was momentarily short of an answer. After a pause, he remarked that it was actually easier to think of the odd occasions on which they had dipped below that level, such was the sustained excellence provided by Mitchell Johnson, Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon.

Watching from his familiar perch at the boundary's edge on day two of the final Test in Sydney, McDermott would only have added a few minutes at most to his aggregate of shifts for the series.

For most of England's innings, including a brief but close to terrifying six overs on the first evening, the standard maintained by the bowlers was unimpeachably lofty. Against batsmen well and truly broken by their weight of failure and now longing for home, it quickly became an embarrassingly lopsided spectacle.

At the moment of Ian Bell's dismissal by Siddle the SCG scoreboard read 5 for 23. What it might have quantified, had Shane Watson held a garden-variety slips catch from Bell's first ball from Harris, can only be imagined.

Either way, McDermott had further reason to be proud of his men's efforts, even more so for the fact they have kept charging in with remarkable hunger and energy despite going unchanged throughout the series. Whatever aches and pains harboured by Harris they were unnoticeable. The only wounds on display were psychological, and exclusive to the England batsmen.

No more was this evident than in the exit of Cook, who will leave these shores as perhaps the most harried captain since the West Indian Jimmy Adams limped home in possession of an 0-5 Frank Worrell Trophy series ledger in 2000-01, and was soon relieved not only of the captaincy but also his place in the team.

Cook scrapped heartily to reach stumps on day one in a period of dull light at the ground and roaring speed from Johnson, but on the second morning lost his equilibrium more swiftly than a jetlagged Englishman catching a cab straight from Sydney airport to the SCG.

Harris' precision against Cook has been a wonder to behold through both series, playing tricks of perception and balance that have made some straight balls appear to move, while other deliveries curling in the air or seaming off the pitch have met the England leader's bat at an angle of the bowler's choosing.

Sometimes the battles have been protracted, but this time it took only two balls. The first was defended stoutly, but the second swung fractionally back from a line Cook was inclined to leave and struck him palpably in front. The moment Cook was pinned, he looked around in a moment of panic, realising too late where his pad and stumps had been. Among Australia's slips cordon there was no surprise, only jubilation.

Ian Bell's promotion to No. 3 had been called for by many throughout the series, but was delayed by an England hierarchy reluctant to move him from the middle order post from which he had warded off so many Australian attacks in the northern summer.

His supremacy in the earlier series was unquestioned, but on faster pitches Bell has had less time to use his cultured hands to make late adjustments to high quality pace bowling. The cumulative result has been edges of the kind he offered up first ball on day two, bat straight but feet on the crease.

"One of the main goals for us was to cut Ian Bell out and I think we've done that beautifully," Harris said. "It's been good. You don't get many opportunities at all to play 10 Tests against the same players. The main thing has been to execute and we've done that, we started it in England and topped it off here.

"We know we've bowled well to them: there's no coincidence they haven't made runs - it's because of how we've bowled. It's just the pressure we've put on the whole series that has not allowed them to play their own games and play the way they want to."

A first-ball reprieve for Bell in England would have caused much gnashing of teeth, but in Sydney when Shane Watson put down a simple opportunity the Australians simply continued to pursue the lines and lengths that would suffocate their quarry. Watson was on hand to claim a catch for Harris when Kevin Pietersen edged an uncertain push forward, before Bell replayed his first ball with a thinner edge from Siddle that Brad Haddin held neatly.

The crowd were rapturous, the Australian players beaming broad smiles. Among those watching was Glenn McGrath, who had generously labelled Australia's bowling in this series the best he had ever seen. But little triumphalism emanated from Harris or the other bowlers, their modest commitment to the trade being as much a key to their success as the speed and accuracy of their bowling and the unity of their purpose.

"Glenn's come out and said those nice words but we don't see it that way, we've got to go out and do our job and do it to the best of our ability," Harris said. "At the moment it's working, and hopefully we'll be able to maintain that for another two years ... I'm getting old so we'll wait and see but we want to make sure we keep putting pressure on whoever we're playing. If we do that, teams won't make many runs."

The respect Harris speaks of now extends well beyond the small group who assembled at McDermott's Brisbane home for a fast bowlers' barbeque before the series began. Much as McDermott had done, there is barely a soul who has witnessed these Tests who would easily be able to choose a moment of brilliance from Australia's bowling attack to outshine the rest of their work in the Ashes summer of 2013-14. That's because, to borrow a phrase beloved of Harris, "It's all good."

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • kieran on January 5, 2014, 13:00 GMT

    @Protears, small correction, the attack that was "smashed" at the WACA was led by John Hastings (Siddle didn't play). At the time (considering form and 1st class records) it was considered by most Aus fans to be, at best, a third string attack.

  • kieran on January 5, 2014, 10:05 GMT

    @BlightyTragic, it's funny how things go in cycles, perhaps now more people might see the 10/11 Ashes in a new light. Then, a poorly selected and out of form team was embarrassed by a well organised and cohesive unit executing well-planned attacks.

    SA have clearly been #1 for years, but they are obviously now weaker without Kallis (a small window of hope for Aus). India have an excellent crop of talented young players, but they continually work their way up the rankings through home wins and lose away against the stronger teams. And they lost again. If you ask @Greatest_Game he will tell you that Aus haven't lost a series in SA for 20 yrs.

    In the end I'll agree with Mcgrath, this is one of the best performing Aus attacks I've seen in decades. But it will avail us nothing if our frail batting continues to fail.

  • Basil on January 5, 2014, 9:56 GMT

    A lot of opinion hinting that Australia have benefited from England being "off". Could it actually be that Australia's bowlers have been brilliant? This was a team with Cook, Trott (6 Tests), Bell, KP, and Prior. All these are world class performers. Maybe, just maybe, can we give credit where credit is due, and admit that Australia have a very good allround bowling attack? They have taken all 100 possible wickets available, how often does that happen?

  • Dummy4 on January 5, 2014, 9:37 GMT

    Once again I see talk of "friendly conditions" and "Australia won 5 nil..but" The English players had same use of these "friendly conditions". Australia has won 5 Nil in Ashes 3 times. Has England ever done that? It is a stretch to say that this is the best attack Australia has had. What they do have is consistency and the ability to maintain pressure. Granted the English batsmen have played some dire shots but it's the pressure the bowlers have exerted that has caused it. Australia's top 6 have not been very consistent which will be further exposed by the likes of Steyn and Phillander. South Africa will be a big challenge for Australia. Will the departure of Kallis even the contest somewhat?

  • Tim on January 5, 2014, 9:21 GMT

    Before this series started, people were putting the English bowlers on a pedestal with swann, Anderson, and broad the holy trinity and best bowling attack in England's history. The Unchangables bowling attack is the most deep and consistent in world cricket at the moment. Harris v philander, steyn v Johnson and morkel v siddle will be close but who will compete with Lyon? Who will be Sth Africa's fourth seamer? Tests are won and loss on the strength of the fourth seamer and spinner as it gives the frontline bowlers time to rest. The sth Africans cannot rely on their holy trinity to win the series against Australia because they will be overworked and tired by the second test. Aussies will win, 3-0, Graeme smiths hand is already tingling at the thought of Johnson steaming in!

  • Pankaj on January 5, 2014, 8:59 GMT

    Hope to see Harris play more Ashes ... 5-0 couldn't have happened to better, nicer, big-hearted guys than him and Siddle. @Jono Makim - point about centuries is fine, but you must understand that hardly in any session was the English bowling consistently putting the squeeze on Australian batsmen. They could only choke off runs once or twice. South African attack will be a different equation. Not that Aussies can't score runs in pressure situations, but please don't extrapolate on the basis of this series.

  • Wesley on January 5, 2014, 8:15 GMT

    Australia in Australia are a tough proposition for any side to play, we were out played in Brisbane and Adelaide yet won comprehensively at Perth once we got the opportunity to seize initiative and apply pressure. We did what Allistair Cook eluded to in his post match, we were able to turn a series 360 degrees and smashed a Mitchell Johnson, Siddle, Watson, Starc, Lyon led attack into submission in a post tea session on day 3 where Hashim Amla played one of the most peculiar innings of his career smashing his way to 196, followed by ABDV reverse sweeping Lyon into hands on hips.

    The current Australian attack was the one that lost the crazy Newlands test 2 years ago where 24 wickets fell in a day then Australia toiled forever to try and get Smith and Amla out. For Australia there are questions also, can Watson and Harris stay fit? Can Johnson sustain form and can Lyon be effective away from Australia which he hasn't yet been in India and was dropped in England.

  • Alexander on January 5, 2014, 7:46 GMT

    My concern for the Australian team is that they beat an English side that had run out of fuel, not one that was firing on all cylinders. Like c'mon, really? before this series if you were to line up player vs. player, majority would have been English for sure, based on pure results. (I'm not ignoring the obvious that Aust won playing better cricket)

    Now they will enter a series against the No. 1 South Africans. In South Africa. AFTER another one day/T20 Series and domestic competition period. South Africa cut their teeth on the No. 2 India before this. Who actually competed and drew blood on occasion with the Saffers. Australia beat a side that needed the beating, and lets be honest, its very English to have that Series of complete dismal performance, only to go all phoenix the next.

    Lets just put things into perspective before making claims of brilliance and best bowling attacks until they have tested themselves against the best at home. The Aust. batting needs work, Hadds aside.

  • mudit on January 5, 2014, 7:43 GMT

    McGrath saying that this is the best bowling attack he has seen is true in some ways- he just needs to add "of which I have not been a part" :) I remember McGrath, Gillespie, Kasprowich and Warne bowling in tandem in that 2004-05 tour of India when they finally won in India. Now that was some bowling attack, surely the best to have taken field in this century. For those who want to relieve that most complete bowling attack and its mastery over an awesome batting lineup, here is a link: Ofcourse this current Aussie attack is not bad at all and sets things up nicely vs SA.

  • Pankaj on January 5, 2014, 7:37 GMT

    Greatest Game is priming himself up, for an off-colour Johnson, since mid-November when the Ashes momentum was building up. Thus far Mitchell didn't oblige him with an off-day. Guess winning the Ashes was slightly more important than winning the heart of Greatest Game. One of these days the search for a Johnson off-day will get some results. Keep at it old bean.

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